Thursday, June 30, 2016

This Idea We Call America

America, President Obama has famously said, is an idea. 

But what exactly that idea is is open to discussion.

For Donald Trump and the current crop of nativists, America is a white, Christian country which they want back again. This is, of course, an argument which depends on a short memory and narrow perspective. In this view, "we were here first" means we put down our stake and claimed the land and anyone coming by after that is an intruder, an invasive species.

Of course, human beings probably arrived on the North American continent during the stone age, migrating from Africa, across Asia and down into what we now think of as America. From the point of view of "native Americans," they were here first, so they have claim and everyone else is an intruder.  But of course, those "native" Americans are no more native than those who arrived on the east coast centuries later. 

Those native Americans did not arise here out of some pre human hominids but immigrated like every other group who followed them. They simply arrived before other human beings.  Those native Americans were nomads, following herds, mostly buffalo, and they did not even have a concept of owning land, or fences or borders any more than seafaring men thought of owning the oceans. The sea faring explorers might plant a flag on an island, but the water was not something men could own. 

Once the English colonists arrived, they brought deeds to various chunks of land from the King of England across the ocean, which meant no more to the Indians already living in those lands than these pieces of parchment meant to the wildlife, the deer or moose or birds living on these chunks of geography.

But once Europeans set up fences and forts and ports, other Europeans arriving by boat had to play by their rules and places like Ellis Island became portals to life among the civilized in America.

Of course, for several centuries there was another portal of entry: the slave ships, which brought the only population to our shores who did not want to be here in the first place. For the slaves, America was probably their idea of the fifth circle of Hell.

But, for the most part, the claim to belonging in America has had to do with the idea of I was here first or I own this land or this river and if you want to live here, you have to deal with me. 

Thus, we have the idea of borders and Mr. Trump's wall.

We also have now the idea of the gated community.

The idea of America was clearly quite different for the Plains Indian who followed the buffalo, who claimed no turf and recognized no borders than the idea of Philip Sheridan, who, after the Civil War, went West to slaughter those Indians and to herd them into "reservations."  The idea of America for my grandfather, fleeing violence in Europe, was probably closer to the idea of a refuge.  Later his idea of America probably changed, as he faced the brutality of union busting, club wheeling policemen who were owned by wealthy capitalists.  And that idea is different from Jefferson's idea of a land where the noble farmer could thrive, which was different from Hamilton's idea of a land where merchants and entrepreneurs and financiers  could thrive. 

Most of those who gained power on this continent have embraced the idea of America as having to do with property and ownership. 

Freedom is always claimed as an animating idea of America, but I'm less convinced this has been the central driver of American values more than the idea of property.  Once man's freedom can be another man's bondage, whether it's the slave owner and his slave or the segregationist who wants to be free to repress the Blacks in his own state or the Koch brothers who want to be free to destroy unions so they can freely exploit their workers.

The more I see of Europe or South America or Asia or Africa, the less sure I am that America is really all that different from the rest of the planet.  I suspect I am more like a German living in Berlin today than I am like an American who was living in Virginia in 1776.  What has shaped me most is the time in which I'm living than the place of my ancestry. 

My father claimed he was a "closet patriot." He did not like to advertise his affection for his country. He thought showy patriotism was inevitably phony. He said he paid his taxes in full and on time and that was his version of patriotism. 

And he always said he'd rather live in America than any other country.  Looking around today, I have to agree with him, even if I'm not sure what exactly this thing, this idea, "America" actually is.

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